Two Ways to Strengthen the Cause-and-Effect Chain in Your Manuscript

Two Ways to Strengthen the Cause-and-Effect Chain in Your Manuscript

Over the weekend I dreamt I was caulking my bathtub with toothpaste while delivering a speech to the UN. 

After the speech, I ended up at a resort that flooded every afternoon. 

Fearing a mold infestation, I suggested hotel staff build a gate to prevent the high tide from soaking the first-floor rooms. 

My suggestion worked, but it also trapped everyone in the resort until low tide. As we waited for the water to recede, a few disgruntled vacationers dipped their toes in the alligator-infested water. 

Because this was my dream, I wanted to understand it. So after waking up I spent a few hours trying to find the dream’s hidden meaning. 

But if this hot mess of disconnected ideas showed up in a published story, I might stop reading mid-paragraph. 

Good stories make sense and help me understand something about myself. 

Great stories have an invisible magnetic river that pulls me toward an ending so powerful I have to read it again to see how the author pulled it off. 

To develop an invisible magnetic river you need a strong narrative arc, a powerful universal, and a continuous cause-and-effect chain that runs through your manuscript.

Master the cause-and-event chain and each item will propel your story forward.

Break the chain or fail to create one and you’ll lose, confuse, or bore your readers. 

So how do you guarantee there’s a powerful cause-and-effect chain in your manuscript? 

If you’re a plotter who likes to plan your entire book before writing the first word, Bret Anthony Johnston recommends you start with the end and then outline backward until you reach the beginning of your story. 

This technique works well if you know your ending. 

But if you don’t have an ending in mind or you’re a pantser who likes to discover the story as you draft, simply use this technique after you’ve completed a traditional outline or written a first draft.  

If you’re not a fan of outlining, you can write a synopsis for your project after you’ve completed a strong third or fourth draft. If you’ve written a book, your synopsis should be between two to four pages in length. If you’ve written an essay or short story, shoot for a paragraph. 

While this might seem like extra work, it isn’t. If you plan to publish your book, you’ll need a synopsis for the querying process. Plus, it’s easier to see the flaws in a two- to four-page document than it is in a two-hundred-fifty-page manuscript. Revising at the synopsis level can help you find targeted ways to improve your story’s cause-and-effect chain that might be impossible to see if you’re trying to complete a chapter-by-chapter revision of your manuscript. 

Once you’ve written your synopsis, ask the following questions: 
 

  1. How does your main character change from beginning to end? If the main character doesn’t change, your story has a serious problem. 
  2. Do you know what the main character wants at every point listed in your synopsis? If you don’t, you need to figure out why these events matter. Once you’ve solved that problem, ask yourself whether the character’s need in each situation is related to the change you identified in question one. If it’s not related, consider cutting that item. 
  3. Have you created an interlocking sequence of events?  If you can insert the words “and then” between your events, it’s likely you’ve created a series of interesting yet unrelated situations. To remedy this, employ the principle of “but” and “therefore” used by the creators of South Park. You can read about this principle here, but let me share a few basics. The words “and then” suggest your events are not connected. For example, you can caulk your tub with toothpaste “and then” for unrelated reasons present to the UN. The words “but” and “therefore,” suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between your events. Here’s what my dream might look like if I applied the principle of “but” and “therefore.” 

 
I was scheduled to give a Zoom lecture to the UN. 

But two minutes before the event, I discovered the only place in my house with good WIFI was the bathroom. 

Therefore I set up my laptop in front of the shower. 

But the grout was in terrible shape. 

Therefore I used some toothpaste to fill in the cracks right before my speech. 

The speech was successful therefore we celebrated with an island getaway. 

The hotel was great but it flooded every afternoon. Therefore I suggested they build a gate to stop the water. 

Okay, it’s still not a great story, but do you see how inserting “but” and “therefore” improved it? 

Once you’ve applied the principle of “but” and “therefore” to your synopsis, you can apply it to your chapter or scene summaries. If this interests you, check out the following blog post.

After you’ve shaped your scene or chapter summaries, it will be easier to refine your manuscript’s invisible magnetic river. 

Don’t get discouraged if your early or even mid-stage drafts look a little like my dream. Most writers fail to see the problems in their cause-and-effect chains, especially when they’re working on book-length manuscripts. If you get frustrated, put your project away and work on something else. When you’re ready to revise, you’ll find the connection points that shape your idea into a praiseworthy story. 
 
 What strategies have you used to build your cause-and-effect chains? 

How have these strategies helped you improve your drafts? 
 

One Exercise that Can Boost Your Creative Intuition

One Exercise that Can Boost Your Creative Intuition

Over the weekend, I celebrated my forty-seventh birthday with a cake, a silly Facebook post, and a dinner party with actual humans. 

I planned everything myself. 

This might not seem like a big deal to you, but I grew up in a home where having opinions, wants, or needs could lead to a crisis that ended with your favorite belongings smashed against the floor. 

By early adulthood, I’d mastered the ability to suppress my desires for even simple things. If someone asked what I wanted for dinner I said, “I don’t know. What do you want?”  

Whatever the response, I replied, “Me too.” 

Once, this strategy led to a celebration dinner for a promotion I’d received at Red Lobster. Just so you know, I can’t stand seafood. My stomach churned as I inhaled clouds of fish-flavored air and gnawed on a corn cob while my partner scarfed down Cheddar Bay Biscuits and bites of lobster tail.  

Ever chewed on a corn cob? 

It’s a lousy way to pass the time. 

But dinner isn’t the only place where we suppress our desires.

Sometimes, we treat our writing lives the same way. 

How many times have you poopooed an idea that felt too outrageous? 

Or revised a story to please the person in your writing group or class who seemed to know best, even though their feedback fundamentally changed your story? 

Ever abandoned a manuscript because someone said it wasn’t marketable? 
 
Your ideas are your currency. 

Unlike money in a bank account that earns interest, unused creative ideas lose their value. 
 

So how do you turn the spark of an idea into an actual story?

You write a shitty first draft. 

But it’s not that simple. To write that shitty first draft, you have to trust yourself and the process. 

Here’s an exercise to help you build a little trust. 
 
Make sure to set aside between thirty minutes to one hour so you can complete items 1 – 4 during one writing session.
 

  1. Meditate for five minutes. If you’re new to meditation or want to expand your meditation repertoire, check out this blog post
  2. After your meditation, set a timer for three minutes then begin with the following line: I want to write about Don’t stop until the timer sounds.  
  3. When time is up, star the most interesting item. This is your desire. 
  4. Set a timer for twenty minutes and begin the shitty first draft of that story. If the first twenty minutes energizes you, you can write for another twenty minutes. Try to keep going until the idea begins to feel like a project. 
  5. If you’ve just completed your first draft, continue with this step. But, if you’ve taken a break, reread your piece. Once you’re ready, ask yourself which organ in your body houses this story.Don’t think about it. Just write down your first answer. 
  6. If your mind blanks, write the following line in your journal. If I had to guess where the story lives it would be…Using your nondominant handwrite down the first organ that comes to mind. 
  7. Once you have an answer, click here to discover how your organs and emotions are connected.  As you read through this blog post, did you notice any connections? Which emotion resonated with you? Use this information to strengthen your story’s conflict.  
  8. Next, write down everything you know about this emotion. For example, what do you know about anger?

 

  • Where does it come from?
  • Who’s allowed to be angry?   
  • How have you healed (or not healed) your anger? 
  • How does anger influence the story idea you came up with? 
  • How does the character’s understanding of anger evolve over the course of the story? 

 
     Answering these questions can help you build a narrative arc. 

     Keep it up and you might even find a theme. 
 

  1. Now, return to your shitty first draft and keep writing

 
Trust that the story is teaching you something important. All you need to do is show up and listen to what it has to say. 

Trusting in your creative process helps build the creative intuition each writer must develop. 

If you want to truly understand its power, join me this Thursday, 4/15/21, from 1:00 PM – 2:30 PM EDT for my pay-it-forward generative writing class where we’ll put these principles into practice. 

All I ask in return is that you either donate to your favorite writing organization ($10 minimum) or find a way to support another writer. Buy a book. Share an essay on social media. Write a review then post it on Amazon and Good Reads. 

That’s it. 

To join the class, send me an email by Wednesday 4/14/21 at 5:00 PM EDT. Be sure to send me a screenshot of your donation or effort to support another author. 

Completing this exercise and showing up to this class are opportunities to claim your creative space. 

It’s a little like saying this is what I want for dinner. 

It’s such a simple thing, and yet it can have powerful results. 

I hope to see you this Thursday.

And when you finish this exercise let me know what it taught you about the writing process.

Birthday Month Giveaway Number One: Two Ways You Can Turbocharge Your Writing Life

Birthday Month Giveaway Number One: Two Ways You Can Turbocharge Your Writing Life

On Saturday, April 3, 2021,  I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Over the past twelve months, I’ve rarely ventured outside my neighborhood.  

As vaccination day approached, I realized I would spend at least an hour inside a mass vaccination site that held more people than I’d seen all year. 

That alone scared me.

But I believed the jab was my ticket to freedom, so I kept the appointment. 

The vaccination site had been set up inside an old department store. A medical team had decorated the chipped floor with tape lines that resembled runways. Volunteers in bright orange shirts smiled with their eyes as they directed traffic. 

The closer I got to the needle the more my heart pounded. 

I wanted to get the vaccine, but as a person with autoimmune issues, life has shown me there are far worse things than COVID isolation. 

After answering the required questions, a warning appeared on my file. Damn, I thought, wondering if they were going to send me away. But I was told they’d give me the shot in exchange for a thirty-minute wait.  

I said a quick prayer, accepted my shot, then plunked down in the chair so I could scroll through my email. 

To my right, a gentleman named Leroy chatted with anyone who looked in his direction. Like me, he had an extended post-vaccine wait. When he laughed, his whole body shook with a force that made his wheelchair squeak. He was happy to be around other people and so eager to share plans for his post-vaccine life that others shared their plans too.  Eventually, I struck up a conversation with Leroy about weekend plans. He told me a friend had invited him over for Easter dinner, which was a gift since he didn’t have family in the area. 

In a few days, I’ll turn forty-seven.

The vaccine and my conversation with Leroy were my first two birthday gifts. 

Long ago, I learned that the fullness of our lives resides not in the gifts given to us, but those we bestow on others. They create a chain reaction inside us that increases our openness, receptivity, and happiness.

In an open and receptive state, we’re more likely to hear our muse, show up to our writing lives, and work on the stories we care about. 

During the month of April, I want to give a few gifts of my own. In this month’s newsletter, I’m going to talk about how you can use chain reactions to turbocharge your stories while also giving you some opportunities to create those chain reactions in your writing life. 

This week I have two opportunities for you. 

If you’ve recently finished (or have almost finished) your novel, I’m giving away one spot in Lindz McLeod’s Query Writing Seminar which takes place this Thursday, 4/8/21, from 2:00 PM EDT – 4:00 PM EDT. 

I met Lindz in New York City while we were both attending the Writer’s Hotel Conference. Her talent and skills are off the charts. Over the past two years, I’ve been blown away by her productivity, determination, and publishing prowess. You can find a full description of the session below. 

Here’s what I can guarantee to the lucky recipient. You’ll have a fabulous time during the session, and you’ll leave with an arsenal of tips and tricks that will help you land an agent. 

I’m giving this away to the first person who sends me an email. 

 

UPDATE: The free spot has already been taken, but you can still sign up for her course by clicking here
 
I ask that you pay this gift forward in two ways:  

  1. Follow Lindz on Twitter: @lindzmcleod
  2. If you love her course, write a review and share it with her and on social media. 

And, for those of you who are somewhere between your first word and the finish line, I’ve got a special gift for you. 

On Thursday, 4/15/21, from 1:00 PM EDT – 2:30 PM EDT, I will offer a ninety-minute pay-it-forward generative writing class. It’s an opportunity to give back, get mindful, draft something new, and ask questions about the writing process. 

To reserve your spot, I ask that you send me an email that includes one of the following: 

  1. A screenshot of a donation to a charity or writing organization of your choice (minimum $10). 
  2. A screenshot that shows your support for a fellow writer. This could be anything from reading and sharing their essay or short story on social media to writing a 5-sentence review of their book on Good Reads and Amazon, to telling others to follow them. 

To receive your spot, send me an email with a screenshot of your act of generosity. That’s it.

Doors for this opportunity will close on Wednesday, 4/14/21,  at 5:00 PM EDT. 

I hope to see you on 4/15.

Until then, tell me about a time when doing something for others improved your life. I’d love to hear your story. 

 Happy writing and happy spring! 

Six Ways to Enhance (or Jump-Start) Your Writing Community

Six Ways to Enhance (or Jump-Start) Your Writing Community

The first few weeks of my querying process were dominated by a major bout of internal radio silence

No ideas. 

No desire to write. 

Not even an urge to pick up my pen. 
 
Then, while I was on my morning walk, I asked my partner a question. What if…

The answer was intriguing, scary, and thankfully sticky. 

Three days later, it popped in my head again. Except this what-if was accompanied by two characters who were interested in the same question. 

The next day, I had two plot-related what-ifs

Even though the long wait for query responses had stifled my motivation, the story idea wouldn’t let go.

So, I let my what-ifs build until one day I found myself writing chapter one. 

Now I’m three thousand words into what looks like a new project. 

What made the difference? 

My connections with other people. 

I have a partner who thankfully listens as I entertain story ideas. 

A query buddy has been checking on me regularly and cheering me on.  

I belong to a couple of writing groups filled with courageous writers who are also querying and submitting their work. 

Late last week, writing coach Melanie Bishop sent me a link to a video of a baby laughing as her dad rips up a job rejection letter. A friend had sent it to her and suggested she watch it every time a rejection rolls in. 

I triple dog dare you to watch this video with a straight face. 
 
Were you able to do it? 

Me neither.

As I reflected on my week, I realized the baby video was the tipping point. After watching it, I stop taking life so seriously and remembered that I write for the joy of telling a good story. That joy is available even in the querying silence. (Thank you, Melanie!) 

So,  I want to ask you the following questions: 
 

  • Who’s encouraging you to write? 
  • Who reads your work and celebrates its strengths?
  • Who gives you feedback on your writing? 
  • Who inspires you to keep learning and perfecting your craft? 
  • Who do you run to when rejections arrive? 

 
If you don’t like your answers, now is the perfect time to expand your list of connections. 

Looking for a generative group? 

Check out Emily Stoddard’s Hummingbird Sessions or Paula Boyland’s Virtually the Write Time

Want to take a class? Here are a few suggestions:  

 
Looking for a conference with workshop options?
While the application deadline for some of these has passed, be sure to add the following organizations to your list:  

 
How about a conference? 
AWP has a worldwide conference directory

Here are just a few of my favorites: 

Hippocamp Literary Conference
James River Writers Conference
San Francisco Writers Conference
Muse and the Marketplace

Want to find some writers online? 
Here’s a list of Facebook groups you can join. 

Need a hashtag to help you connect with writers on Twitter or Instagram? 
Here you go

Promise me you’ll take one step toward building a richer and more robust writing life.

If you want to learn how to work effectively with your new writing peers, join me tomorrow for Get Better Critiques Now: How to get the best feedback on your manuscript (and what to do with it)

Investing and nurturing your connections with other writers is an important part of your writing life. It’s one that will make uncertain times a little easier to bear.

Who knows? A  conversation with a writing buddy, a moment of inspiration during a walk, or a funny video shared between friends might inspire you to begin a brand-new project.

And if this seems scary or awkward, do it anyway. Building a writing community is like eating your vegetables. You might not always like them, but they’re good for you.  

 

4 Reasons Your Muse Goes Silent and What You Can Do to Regain Your Creative Mojo

4 Reasons Your Muse Goes Silent and What You Can Do to Regain Your Creative Mojo

Over the weekend, I honored the one-year anniversary of the COVID pandemic by scrolling through the pictures on my phone. The collection included empty meat counters, picked-over produce, and bare shelves that should’ve been stocked with toilet paper and cleaning supplies. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether we’d succumb to the virus or starve. 

But here we are.  

Sometimes our writing lives feel as barren as those shelves. We show up to the page hoping our muse will tag along. Instead, we endure a deafening internal radio silence and fear that our creative life might be done.  

There are a number of reasons why your creativity might have dried up,  including: 
 

  • External radio silence on submissions and queries
  • Pressures to produce 
  • Mental health challenges or physical illnesses  
  • The rejection blues 

 
To remedy these issues you need to understand what’s going on below the surface. 

Radio Silence on Submissions 

While waiting for a submission reply, your brain might try to champion your writing project by whispering “Pick me! Pick me!” into the ether, hoping an agent or publisher will be inspired to read and then accept your work. 

But as much as we might like to influence the order of submittable submissions or rearrange someone’s inbox with our good thoughts and email refresh habits, we can’t. 

Holding on to work you’ve sent out eats away at your creativity. 

Sometimes we can’t help but do this. 

If this is the case, follow writer Philip Lawton’s advice and accept that your writing life has entered a fallow period. Rest, listen to music, garden, or do anything else that rejuvenates you. As you enjoy life, have faith that these activities are setting the stage for fertile writing periods to come. 

If you’re looking for a way out of this holding pattern, here are a few suggestions:  

  • Throw a going-away party for your project so you can mentally let it go. 
  • When you can’t stop thinking of it, write the project a letter just like you would to a friend who’s away on a trip. Burn the letter as a way of sending it off. 
  • Schedule fifteen minutes of publication worry time into your calendar. At the appointed time, set a timer and then obsess, fret, or anguish about how long it’s taking and how you have no idea what this means. When the timer sounds, do something physical to release your angst. Then get back to work. 

Pressuring Yourself to Produce

Sometimes fear that taking a break means we’ll never write anything again.

Or we fear that “real writers” constantly produce new work. Would we still be a writer if let ourselves slack off? 

Or perhaps, we’ve been driving ourselves to work on something really intense, or even traumatic.

Pressuring ourselves into a state of productivity drive the muse away. When we ignore our feelings, the wounded part of us can turn off the creative tap until we work on safer material. 

The opposite of fear is love, so that’s my prescription for you. 

  • Love yourself by varying the intensity of the topics you write about. 
  • Love yourself by recognizing that “real writers” take breaks and then allow yourself to do the same.
  • Love yourself by finding and following your joy. Write something just for fun and then share it with friends. Don’t do this for feedback. Do it because sharing your creativity brings you joy. 

 
Physical or Mental Illness 

When we’re not feeling well, our natural response is to slow down. This is the body’s way of diverting the energy of doing toward the energy of healing. We generally accept these downtimes when illnesses are short, but when illnesses are chronic illness, it can feel like the world is passing you by. 

As someone who struggled through a four-year battle with Lyme disease, and chronic depression before that, I empathize with every person who wants to give the couch the bird 

But if struggles with mental or physical illness have sent your muse packing, self-care is how you call it back home. 

Practicing self-care might mean changes to your diet, moving more, getting some sunshine and fresh air, or assess the health of your relationships. 

Sometimes you need to partner with healthcare providers or take medications that help the body and brain feel more balanced. 

It could mean changing your career or developing a spiritual practice. 

Regardless of what’s required, self-care is the act of loving yourself.

Love yourself and the muse will love you too. 

 

The Rejection Blues 

Repeated rejections can make you question your writing and your self-worth. 

Reminders that a rejection could be about something other than the quality of your work might not be enough, especially if you’ve received multiple rejections on something that’s taken years to perfect. 

 Sometimes, you have to let go of a publication dream before you can move on. 

Here are a few suggestions: 
 

  • Find a way to honor each rejection. I belong to a group where we celebrate each rejection as a badge of courage. If you can find or create a group like this, shout each rejection from a mountain top. See how many you can get. This can be incredibly helpful because writers who amass rejections are also writers who eventually get published. 
  • Hold a funeral for the ones that sting. Eulogize that publication dream then bury it. Let yourself grieve until you’re ready to send the next one off. 
  • Spend time reconnecting with why you like to write. If you don’t have one, create a mission statement or a writer’s prayer and visit with it on a daily basis. Let that mission statement or prayer fuel your future publication attempts.
  • It can be hard to accept that not every project gets published. Unfortunately, that is part of the writing life. If you need to let a project go, list all the skills you learned while working on it and celebrate any wins, no matter how small. When you’re ready, work on something else.  

 
Being in a fallow period doesn’t mean you stop showing up to the page. Whenever my creativity goes dormant, I return to Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way and resume my morning pages routine—three handwritten pages per day, first thing in the morning (or whenever I get to it). Showing up nurtures my creative life, and when my muse feels fully restored, she returns to me. Then we get back to work. 

So, what do you do to combat your internal radio silence? 

How do you love yourself through the process? 

Send me an email. I’d love to know what’s working for you.

And when things don’t, have faith that you are not alone. 

I know because a number of writers shared their stories with me.

We are all here to cheer each other on.  

Tips and Tricks for Navigating the 6 Emotional Stages of the Submission Process

Tips and Tricks for Navigating the 6 Emotional Stages of the Submission Process

If you’ve ever sent a manuscript off for feedback or submitted a piece for publication, you might be familiar with the six stages of external radio silence. 
 

  • Elation that you’ve actually finished something and sent it out.
  • Doubt that you made the right choice. 
  • Pleading that someone get back to you with an answer—any answer—as long as it doesn’t break your heart. 
  • Fear that the delay means your manuscript is the pits. You actually pray that it’s rejected. 
  • Either jubilation that your work was accepted, or despair that it didn’t work out, and maybe it never will. 
  • Acceptance of the outcome. If the feedback was helpful or your piece was published, you celebrate. If not, you dust your manuscript off, make any necessary changes, and send it out again, because real writers write. They also send off their work.   

 
Life in submission purgatory is messy. We can forget that while rejections might signal a need for more revision, they’re not condemnations of us or our work. Sometimes, the problem is simply a matter of fit. 

For example, my essay “Half-Life” was rejected twenty-five times over the course of two years before it was picked up by Kenyon Review Online. I knew it was a good piece, so every five rejections, I sent it off for a critique, revised it, then sent it back out.  

I’m not the only writer who’s survived external radio silence

I met Margaret Lee at the 2019 Writer’s Hotel Conference while we attended a workshop with New York Times bestselling author Meghan Daum. During the summer of 2020, Margaret finished the agent-ready draft of her memoir Starry Field, and then began the querying process. In early 2021, she finally snagged an agent. 

Here’s what Margaret had to say: 

“As Tom Petty once sang, ‘the waiting is the hardest part.’ That was so true for me. It was excruciating, especially since I had to wait so long for responses.”

Like Margaret, many of you talked about the bad neighborhoods that form in your heads when the silence gets uncomfortable.

There are a number of things you can do to address this discomfort. 

Gather your wagons: Before you submit your work for feedback or publication, identify and touch base with the cheerleaders who love you no matter what. Your list should include fellow writers, friends, family members, and even pets. 

Katherine Herndon, Executive Director of James River Writers, is a huge proponent of finding and leaning on your writing friends.

“You need to be around people who understand the little wins (“I got a nice rejection”) and the frustrations (“an agent who has my full manuscript just announced on Twitter that she’s quitting agenting.”)—this is particularly important for the frustrations that would make you look bad if you actually posted them on Twitter.”

Remember your intention (or form one): A good story can enlighten, comfort, and help heal our deepest wounds. When the silence turns your mind into a bad neighborhood, write about how your project serves other people. Use that vision to bolster your faith. While you continue to wait, make a small contribution to the group who would benefit most from your story. You could make a donation to a nonprofit, volunteer for an organization, or write an essay that highlights the needs of this community. 

Start something new: Instead of waiting desperately to hear from “the one,” working on a new project reminds you that you’ve got other options. 

Enjoy life: Poet Frank Bidart said we should all spend time making art and then live life. If you’re not quite ready to start a new project, enjoy the life you have. Bake a pie, paint a picture, walk barefoot on the grass. Stroll by the river and find the perfect stone. Once you’re vaccinated, eat dinner with friends, go on a vacation, and find every opportunity to appreciate the world you might not have seen during the past twelve months. 

Remember, it’s not always about you. Margaret has one last bit of advice for those of us mired in the silence. “Keep sending out your work. Finding an agent depends on a lot of things that don’t include the quality of your writing: timing, workload, life events (pregnancy, new baby, sick family member), etc. Don’t be afraid to query more.”

Her advice reminds me of something my mentor Sharon Harrigan once said. “After one hundred rejections, things begin to pick up.” You might be thinking, one hundred rejections! Really? But she was absolutely right. Things picked up after I reached one hundred rejections. To earn those rejections, I had to keep sending my work out. 

If you’re navigating the silence, know you’re not alone.

I’m with you on this journey. 

Let’s be each other’s cheerleaders because our stories are our gifts. 

Enjoy the life you have and keep writing on. 
 

The Two Forms of Radio Silence that Can Impact Your Writing Life

The Two Forms of Radio Silence that Can Impact Your Writing Life

On Wednesday, February 24, 2021, I sent my manuscript to the first batch of interested agents. Adrenaline spiked through my nervous system as I clicked the send button and watched my queries disappear.

The rest of the day was filled with all the highs and lows that come with showing up for my writing life.  

Reaching this milestone feels incredible, but as all seasoned writers know, this is but one of many steps on the way to publication.

Like many of them, it contains a healthy dose of radio silence while we wait for updates on our manuscript. 

In the writing life, there are two main forms of radio silence. One often leads to the other, which can put a damper on our writing projects. 

External radio silence is easy to spot. It occurs when we’re waiting for feedback on our manuscripts whether it’s from a writing group, beta readers, agents, or publishers.

Many writers jokingly call this purgatory, because while we hope for acceptance and praise and brace for the rejections and revision requests so common in our field, we exist in the great unknown. 

All of that external radio silence can lead to internal radio silence where our creativity stops speaking to us. When our creativity goes silent, we avoid our writing desks or show up to the page empty-headed and unable to produce a thing.

When this happens, we fear we’ll never write again. Some of us turn that fear into a self-fulfilling prophecy and give up the dream of being a “real writer.” 

Here’s a little secret. Internal and external radio silence are normal parts of the writing life. Those of us who’ve been at it for a while know that as uncomfortable as it is, you can survive it. And, if you persevere, you will become a better writer for having endured it. 

The key is to identify it, love ourselves and our writing anyway, and keep showing up. 

Surviving the silence is the topic for this month’s newsletter series.  

Next week, I’ll talk about how to survive your times of purgatory.

In the meantime, I wish you so much success. 

If a story calls to you, that’s because the world needs it. 

So what are you waiting for? 

Novelty, Absurdity, and Magic: Three Elements of Play that Will Enhance Your Writing Life

Novelty, Absurdity, and Magic: Three Elements of Play that Will Enhance Your Writing Life

Last week, I laughed hysterically while watching the video of Rod Ponton, the lawyer who showed up to his Zoom court hearing with the kitten filter turned on. 

I replayed the video three more times, just to hear him say, “I’m live, and I’m not a cat.”  

If you haven’t seen the video, click here. You won’t be disappointed. 

That laughter was a welcome reprieve after a month of memoir revisions right before the anniversary of my brother’s death. 

Developing the capacity to sit with difficult emotions is an important skill we all need to cultivate. But to truly live—and write—with an open heart, we need to balance the dark times with a little fun. When it comes to levity, play is an ally. Play is also essential for your writing projects.  

While getting my bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Louisville, my mentor Paul Griner said there are only seven story plots. Novelist John Gardner reduced them to two—hero goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. Either way you look at it, there are no original stories. But there are original ways to tell them. 

Play can enhance your creativity and originality. It helps you increase your sense of focus, engage with the unexpected, and develop novel connections in your brain. Those novel connections will allow you to see problems in new ways, and as a result, churn out fresh new stories. 

To play and have fun with your writing life, you need to incorporate novelty, absurdity, and magic into three fundamental aspects of your creativity.

Why novelty, absurdity, and magic?

The brain lights up when it encounters something novel. That neural firestorm can create the new story connections you’ve been looking for. 

Absurdity is about embracing the ridiculous. When we do ridiculous, meaningless things, we look at the world in new ways. This can lead to story innovations. 

Magic, and in particular enchantment, is all about delight. When we’re delighted, we experience joy. That joy energizes us and motivates us to create more. Not sure if this is true? Ask yourself how many pages you wrote during your last major funk. Compare that to your output when you were feeling lighter.  

Here are a few ways you can add novelty, absurdity, and magic into your creative life. 

Play with movement 

If you want to be a successful writer, you must develop a blue-collar work ethic around your writing sessions. While this means committing to a butt-in-the-chair practice, sitting for long stretches causes blood to pool in your extremities. This takes nutrients away from your idea maker. You need to balance your butt-in-chair time with a little movement. 

Research has found that walking is a great way to generate fresh ideas. Many of us have developed walking practices during COVID. But to move playfully, you have to do something new. 

Novelty: Take a new route.

Absurdity: Be THAT neighbor: skip, twirl, or walk backward along your route. 

Magic: Stop and listen to the emotions hidden in birdsong. Search for a talisman in the rocks you pass. Photograph something strange or out of place. 

Play with Form

Most of us develop our stories in the same way. We write lots and lots of words on a page. When we’re done, we cross out the ones we don’t like, rearrange the ones we love, then try to perfect our sentences. But that’s not the only way to tell a story. In fact, telling a story off the page either before you draft or between the drafts might lead to insights that make your story stronger. 

Novelty: Instead of writing your story, PowerPoint it, collage it, or storyboard it. If you’ve already written your story, take some time to draw your scene shapes

Absurdity: Instead of writing your story down, record yourself as you perform the draft. Do it in your worst British accent. Make up ridiculous voices for your characters. The more you get into it, the more you’ll open up to the process.  

Magic:  Create the board game version of your project (Think The Game of Life, Monopoly, or Chutes and Ladders). What does the board game look like? What are the rules of this world? 

Play with Ideas

How many times have you flipped through the idea files in your brain, hoping one of them contains a fresh story idea? Instead, you write what you’ve always written. Often, those scenes have the same emotional flavor. Guess what? Sometimes, the best ideas aren’t inside you. To create something fresh and new, look outside of yourself. 

Novelty: Gather four jars and some 2-inch by 2 -inch squares of paper where you can jot down single words. Make a list of situations, feelings, problems, and objects. When it comes to feelings, be sure to include the ones you typically write about and the ones you avoid. If you’d like to expand your repertoire of feelings, click on this list. Write one item on each square of paper.  Drop your situations into one jar. In the second jar, add your feelings. Add your objects to the third jar. In a fourth jar, include your problems. Choose one item from each jar. Now, get writing. 

Absurdity:  Make a list of inappropriate or absurd situations your characters could find themselves in or create a list of objects that would make you think twice about someone. If you’re looking for some inspiration, watch some episodes of the sitcom Seinfeld. Here’s a link to the episode where Jerry steals a loaf of marble rye bread from an old woman.  

Magic: Create an astrological chart for your character and use it to gain insights into their problems.  Or play the board game you created in the previous exercise. Use it to guide your storytelling process. 

 Try a few of these exercises then send me an email. I’d love to hear what worked for you.

Stay warm, find some lightness in your days, and as always write on. 
 

The Importance of Writing with an Open Heart

The Importance of Writing with an Open Heart

Yesterday, I sat at my desk and cried. 

It was the twenty-four-year anniversary of my brother Joe’s suicide. He was twenty when he died. I was twenty-two. His death is now older than both of us—a fact that continually blows me away. 

I’ve dealt with this grief for over half of my life, but this year stung a little more. 

On January 29, 2021, I finished the agent-ready draft of my memoir, How Not to Die: From Death to Life on a Heavy Metal Tour.

After reading the final words, I danced around my office while listening to Europe’s The Final Countdown.

If you’re not familiar with the song, it’s a cheesy ‘80s anthem my brothers and I used to rock out to when we were kids. 

After the song ended, I cried tears of joy. 

I’d done it! 

After three years of hard work, I’d finished my book.

Those who’ve met me know that I’m a fiery person who likes to get shit done (like sending off recently finished manuscripts). 

I’d even set a deadline for myself. On January 29th, come hell or high water, I would send my manuscript to interested agents. I was certain that any other choice would be a letdown. 

Over the years, I’ve learned that many of my hurry-up-and-get-it-done messages come from ego. So, I meditated to figure out whether the twenty-ninth was indeed the right day to send out my manuscript. 

Even though I was excited to move forward, my True Self said wait, at least for a little while. 

Reluctantly, I listened. 

It didn’t take long before grief blanketed my enthusiasm.

I wasn’t surprised. My brother has been gone for a long time. The years since our last touch sometimes make him feel more like a dream. When I started writing this manuscript some of that changed.

Over the past three years, we’ve laughed and cried about all that happened to us. With each revision, he’s become a little more three-dimensional.

Now that it’s time to say goodbye to this manuscript, I feel a profound sense of loss that’s led to some snot bubble cries and more than one good sniff of his leather backpack. My heart aches with an arthritic pain that’s steady yet manageable.

But it’s also okay. 

You see, I signed up for this gig. 

If step one to being a good writer is to listen to your True Self, step two is to live with an open heart. 

To do that, we have to make room for our feelings so they can flow through us. As they do, we need to take care of ourselves. That means crossing things off our to-do lists and resting more than we’d like. Sometimes, it also means waiting before sending off a manuscript for feedback or publication. 

This advice is as true for fiction writers as it is for memoirists.

In both genres, you have to write to the bone of your material, which can take you to some achy places. 

In a world that tells you to go, go, go, waiting might not feel like the sexy option. But giving yourself time to honor the weight and power of your story is a sign of self-respect that can ensure you’re not sending out work from an overly vulnerable place.

Having lived through many anniversaries, I know my grief cycle. Every year, as this anniversary approaches, grief rushes in like the tide. On February 9th, it sweeps back out to sea and the world looks a little brighter. 

I know the urge to cry will subside. 

The aches will disappear. 

When they do, I’m confident my True Self will greenlight my querying process. 

When that happens, I’ll share that journey with you.  
 
In the meantime, take care of your precious hearts and keep writing on.

Building Intuition: How to Tell Which Messages Are Generated by the Ego and Which Ones Come From Your True Self

Building Intuition: How to Tell Which Messages Are Generated by the Ego and Which Ones Come From Your True Self

When I was eight, I read about a boy who used a divining rod to find water. At the time, my six-year-old brothers and I were trying to build an underground house in the remains of an abandoned brickyard. We’d spent lots of time digging out our foundation and building the fires that would keep us warm. But when I read about the divining rod, I realized we had a major problem. There was no way for us to find or transfer water to our off-the-grid, pipe-free home. 

We tried to address the first part of our problem by building a divining rod, but no matter how many times we shook our Y-shaped sticks through the air, they never worked. 

Sometimes writing well requires a little divining. 

We structure our plots hoping to engage our readers, but until we tap into our feelings, we can’t truly flesh them out. 

Our emotions play an important part in our writing lives. They help us understand and connect with our characters’ feelings, build better scenes, and develop more compelling narrative arcs. 

During the revision process, we can use our intuition (which is an amalgamation of our emotions, senses, and experiences) to let hunches and gut feelings lead us to the places in our manuscript that are working and the ones that need our attention.  

But not all emotions are helpful.

Sometimes, we get overwhelmed by our stories or doubts from our internal critic creep in. We fear our stories aren’t good enough or that we are not good enough. These fears amplify our doubts, which can lead us to trash perfectly good manuscripts. 

As writers, our job is to tease out which emotions come from the ego, and which ones come from the true self. 

Ego is the part of our personality that’s invested in our self-image and the way we’re perceived by the external world. It loves labels and frequently makes comparisons between us and others.  Ego creates thoughts like “I am good at writing,” “I’m terrible at math,” “Nobody likes me,” and “I’m better than you.” It’s mostly concerned with appearances and approval. Ego hates to be caught off guard and armors up against vulnerability—often by telling us that our best and most vulnerable writing is actually terrible

On the other hand, your true self is the part of you that’s always wise and always whole. No matter how much we doubt ourselves or how broken we feel, we all have a true self. Your true self is concerned with truth, understanding, and helping you grow.

Your true self encourages you to follow your dreams and gives you the courage to keep going even when the destination is unclear or seems impossibly far away. Your true self is the part of you that knows when something is working.  It also nudges you to keep learning and try harder without affecting your self-worth.

But how do you differentiate between emotions rising from the ego and emotions rising from the true self? 

Here are a few clues. 

If you’re experiencing doubt or fear, it’s probably your ego talking. To confirm this, write down your fearful, doubting self-talk. Then ask yourself the following question: Are these thoughts related to appearances or approval? 

If they are, say hello to your ego.

If ego is causing problems in your writing life, it’s likely that something about the process is making you feel vulnerable. Your job is to explore what that might be. Here are some questions to help you get started.

  1. Is something outside your writing life making you feel more vulnerable? This could be anything from work or family stress to lack of sleep, physical illness, or even seasonal affective disorder. 
  2. Is something about the writing making you feel too vulnerable? Many people are afraid to start something because they might fail. Others are afraid to finish because they’d have to see themselves as powerful and successful. Sometimes, we reach a vulnerable or even traumatic portion of our story and the wounded part of us doesn’t want to continue. This is common in memoir, but it can happen to fiction writers too if the emotions your characters are feeling are ones you also struggle with. When this happens, ask yourself what you need to feel safe. Do you need to check in with a writing buddy, take a break, practice more self-care, or work with a therapist?
  3. Have I gone too long without feedback from a trusted reader? Here’s the truth. Nonwriters don’t understand the writing life, and most don’t care about it. That’s why a writing community is so essential. Writers can normalize the ups and downs you’re facing. When you lose perspective on your writing projects, they can remind you of your strengths and help you make sense of pieces that have gotten muddled.

But not every doubt comes from the ego
Sometimes, your true self is asking you to dig a little deeper. 

You’ll know your true self is talking when you have a nagging feeling that something in the writing isn’t quite right, but—and here’s the important part—you also feel calm. You aren’t worried about how someone else is perceiving you, you’re worried about creating great art that expresses some universal truth. 

For many of us, connecting with our true selves requires a bit of practice and some guidance. That’s one reason I’m currently teaching Building Creative Intuition.

If you’re looking for a few practices to get you started, consider the following options: 

  1. Find time in your day to be alone with your thoughts. This can be done through a journaling practice like Julia Cameron’s morning pages, a walk by yourself (preferably in a quiet, natural setting), or just sitting for fifteen minutes with your eyes closed. 
  2. Develop a mindful meditation practice. Structured mindful meditation practices can help you develop a sense of calm while you quiet your busy mind. The busy static is often your ego chatting away. When your mind quiets down, you’ll hear your true self speaking to you. 
  3. Notice your gut feelings and begin to trust them. Some of us grew up in environments where we were told that our reality wasn’t real, so we stopped trusting that very wise part of ourselves. When this happens, trusting your gut takes practice. The first step to trusting your gut is to notice that you’re having a gut feeling. When one arises, pay attention to what it says and then give yourself permission to act on the information. Consider this an experiment where the results are just data that inform your future choices. The worst that will happen is that you’ll realize you’ve made a mistake and then you can course correct. Think about how many times you’ve done that when you didn’t trust your gut. 

Over time, you’ll find that your emotions can serve as a very effective divining rod that will lead to your very best stories. 
 
Have a strategy for tapping into your intuition? 

Or do you struggle with differentiating between ego and your true self? 

Send me an email. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 
 
 And, as always, keep writing on.

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